If you have ever had a sudden bout of anxiety when you're on the job, you probably know that in the moment, it can feel like there is truly nothing that can be done to stop or tame it. But a panic attack at work, or even just a terrible wave of anxiety, is something you can learn to cope with so that it doesn't completely overtake your day. Also know, though, that it's OK to feel anxious, and first and foremost, try to be gentle and non-judgmental with yourself for experiencing it.
"Panic is an uncomfortable feeling in the body, the result of the 'fight, flight, freeze' instinct that humans are programmed to feel," trauma therapist Joanne Mackie, LMHC, who practice out of New York City, tells Bustle. "The mind engages in a perceived threat, or the spiraling thought pattern that creates a story in which we end up in a place where disaster has struck — we've been caught not being good enough, and the worst possible outcome has been imagined."
This instinct, while protective, is not in any way helpful for getting through the anxiety-provoking situation or pattern of thought, Mackie says. Instead, cultivating tools to come back to neutral, or at least learning to lessen the state of fear in the moment, are going to a true lifeline.
1. Name Shapes, Colors, And Sounds
Focusing on anything other than your anxious thoughts is key, here, so keep some immediate possibilities for distraction in your back pocket.
"If you don't have to be engaged in a conversation at the moment, silently name four shapes, colors, sounds and textures in your immediate environment," Dr. Karin Lawson, a clinical psychologist, and adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University's College of Psychology, tells Bustle.
Focusing on something emotionally neutral that also requires some thought and concentration can help get you out of your distressing thoughts and give you a break, Lawson says. "Hopefully that's long enough to re-group and get some perspective."
2. Take Yourself Outside
A moment in the elements really can make a difference for your brain, so if you can, quickly pop out of your work place and take a walk around the block, the little back woods by the parking lot, or sit for a deep breath on a bench.
"If possible, take yourself outside. The act of walking to the exit will help discharge some anxious energy," Lawson says. "The new scenery of being outside will potentially help distract you from the current distressing thoughts and you'll likely be breathing a bit more deeply as you walk."
3. Have A Breath Practice In Place
This one requires a little practice, but will help you big time in the moment once it's in your coping arsenal. Before anxiety hits, work on making sure you know what breathing deeply actually feels like, Lawson says.
"I know that 'take a deep breath' is a cliché term, but there's value to helping our nervous system take in more oxygen when anxiety hits," Lawson says.
Ideally before you go to bed a night, lay on your back and put a hand on your chest and a hand on your stomach. Now see if you can make your stomach rise and fall with your breath, more than your chest, Lawson says. When we are anxious, we breathe more from our chest, and we're taking more shallow breaths. Challenging that with a deep breath does a lot to bring the body's stress response down.
"Ideally, after practicing this regularly you won't have to lay on your back to know if you're breathing deeply. It's a really portable, discreet way to help yourself take the anxiety down a notch or two," Lawson says.
You can breathe deeply during a meeting or during an anxiety-provoking phone call.
4. Keep A List Of Values And Look At It
Having something to look at to remind yourself of what keeps you feeling stable and good can be a really useful tool in the moment. Try creating a list of values, positive mantras, or coping statements that resonate with you.
"Keep this list of values with you, on your phone or on a card near your desk. When work anxiety hits, go to your list of values and take in the bigger picture," Lawson says. "What themes and ideals are really most important in your life and to you as a person? Getting to our core can support us in putting stress, worry, and fear into check."
So many times we get anxious about things that aren't truly important for us as a human being, Lawson says.
5. Have A Playlist At The Ready
Music is a simple way to move those thoughts out of your head fast. Put together a collection of songs that make you feel happy or calm that you can access in those sudden, rough moments.
"One thing is to have a playlist ready with songs that will help calm you," clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, Psy.D, tells Bustle. "It doesn’t have to be nature sounds or classical. Use whatever music works for you."
As you start to feel more calm, Daramus says, some people like focusing on just one instrument because it takes more concentration away from the anxiety.
6. Play A Game On Your Phone
Yes, sometimes all the ways that your phone distracts you really can help in a moment of panic when you need to concentrate on absolutely anything else.
"In order to help you focus on anything other than the anxiety, simple video games on a smartphone can help," Daramus says. "Tetris, Solitaire, Candy Crush, or anything that distracts you can help. There are also meditation apps like Headspace, too."
Doing something silly that can guide your mind towards another subject, or using another part of your brain, is a great tool.
7. Take Care Of Your Basic Needs
While it might feel really difficult to do anything at all in the midst of anxiety, try to bring it back to the absolute basics. Can you have a small snack? Go to the bathroom? Fix yourself some tea or send a text to a friend?
"Take care of the most basic of needs like water and walking slowly. Take breaks." Daramus says. This can help to simply reorient you to the present moment and remind you that right now, everything is fine, you are safe, and there is no real threat.
8. Challenge The Thoughts And Name Them
"Spiraling thoughts are perceived or imagined threats, so ask yourself what are you afraid is going to happen and bring yourself back into this moment where none of those things are actually happening," Mackie says.
Recognizing that anxiety is a natural phenomenon, and naming it as what it is can really help, Mackie says. Acknowledging that your body is pumping adrenaline because your brain fears something that isn't actually happening can help you to pull yourself back in.
While all of these tips can be really useful on the day to day and in the moment, know that if anxiety or mental health struggles are causing issues in your life, do also keep in mind that reaching out for help from a professional is a positive start towards healing.